Buffalo Lighthouse, a sloping conical tower, was erected in a mere 221 days. Near the lighthouse, a stone breakwater was extended into the lake to enlarge and protect the city’s harbor. Mother Nature opposed this extension with severe storms, and Buffalonians were often obliged to leave their beds in the middle of the night to repair storm damage to the incomplete pier.
Buffalo’s lighthouse doubled as a rescue station on the night of October 31, 1821, when a steamboat was caught in a mighty storm. This was not just any steamboat, but the only steamboat on the entire Great Lakes at that time. Its importance to the local community can be appreciated in that it was known by the rather mystical moniker given it by Native Americans, Walk-in-the-Water. Mrs. Alanson W. Welton, a survivor of the accident, recalled that “the boat struck the beach in a fortunate spot for the safety of the passengers and crew – near the lighthouse – and all were saved. The warm fireside we gathered around at the lighthouse was comforting to our chilled limbs, and our hearts warmed with gratitude to God for deliverance from our peril.”
In 1825, the Erie Canal opened operations with its western terminus emptying directly into the harbor at Buffalo. This greatly increased the city’s ship traffic along with its population, which quadrupled between 1825 and 1832. In this era, Buffalo was a dangerous and bustling frontier town with half of its residents being born in foreign countries. The influx of immigration and instability contributed to high crime; between 1830 and 1835 an astounding 70% of crimes reported in the entire United States happened in or around Lake Erie or the Erie Canal. Amid this growing hodgepodge of people, the government decided that the old lighthouse could scarcely be seen with all of “the smoke of the village.” In 1826, the Treasury Department allocated $2,500 “to erect and build a pier, and lighthouse and ice breaker.” All this work was to be completed by 1828, but the lighthouse, which remains standing today, has a completion year of 1833 inscribed in the lintel above its door.
Lieutenant G.J. Pendergast of the U.S. Navy provided the following description of Buffalo Lighthouse in 1837:
At Buffalo, there is already a good stationary light, on a stone tower at the end of the harbor pier. This is of course highly useful, and I believe is judiciously located and well arranged. The United States have expended, to great advantage, a considerable amount of money in forming an artificial harbor at the mouth of Buffalo creek. From the unparalleled growth of this town, and its extensive commerce, I apprehend that, at no very distant period, it will be found necessary, for the convenience of shipping, to construct another harbor. At this time, indeed, the limited capacity of Buffalo creek is felt to be a serious impediment to business, the harbor at times being literally choked up with vessels. No place on Lake Erie is of more importance, in a commercial point of view, than Buffalo, and, of course, none more deserving of the favors of the General Government. The city of Buffalo contains about 18,000 inhabitants; its commerce employs about 300 sail vessels, and 40 steamboats.
In 1852, the Lighthouse Board nominated the Buffalo tower as one of twenty lake lighthouses to receive a third-order Fresnel lens, and $2,500 was set aside for a fog bell. Installation of the fog bell was delayed due to the “unsatisfactory performance” of similar bells along the coast of Maine, and before the Buffalo tower received a Fresnel lens, its light source was first upgraded with a new chandelier system that reduced the arc of visibility from 180° to 110° but increased the intensity of the light. Buffalo Lighthouse finally received its fog bell and third-order Fresnel lens in 1856. At this time, the tower’s focal plane was raised to 76 feet through the addition of a course of stone casement windows and a cylindrical metal service room between the top of the old tower and the lantern room. The fog bell was suspended from the black, shelf-like structure that can be seen protruding from the lakeward side of the tower.
A two-ton coal bin was built into the tower’s lower level in 1906, at the behest of the keeper who complained that the stove failed to properly heat the watchroom.
The old stone tower was slated to double as a life-saving station lookout tower, but instead a wooden structure was built on a pier west of the old lighthouse to perform this important function. The new tower was dubbed the “Chinaman’s Light” as its roof resembled a Chinese coolie’s hat and because it was also used to keep an eye out for illegal Chinese immigrants crossing over the Niagara River from Canada. When this structure was torn down, the nickname was transferred to the old Buffalo Lighthouse. The stone tower continued as a navigational aid and also served as a watchtower during Prohibition to counter rumrunners. The presence of a new breakwater light, established in 1872, increasingly relegated Buffalo’s old tower to a mere pierhead light. In 1914, the four-panel Fresnel lens was relocated from the stone tower to a new breakwater lighthouse, and the old lighthouse remained dark for most of the twentieth century.
An occulting red light mounted on a white, steel, skeletal tower was established on the south pier, just east of Buffalo Main Lighthouse, when the latter was discontinued in 1914. The tower also had a fog bell that tolled once every fifteen seconds when needed. An air diaphragm horn replaced the fog bell in 1942.
Buffalo Lighthouse was briefly relit with floodlights in 1976 to commemorate America’s bicentennial and again in 1982 for Buffalo’s sesquicentennial. The four-panel, third-order Fresnel Lens once used in the tower is on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. From 1987 until 2013, a fourth-order, bivalve Fresnel lens that was originally used in the South Buffalo Lighthouse was on display in the tower’s lantern room. This lens was weakly lit at night so as not to mislead maritime traffic.
The tower, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, is still under Coast Guard ownership, but was leased in 1984 to the Buffalo Lighthouse Association, who has poured much time and money into restoring and maintaining the tower. A 1,400-foot promenade along the south side of the Buffalo River features impressive historical signage that recounts the maritime history of the region. The promenade is a product of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and the city’s efforts to preserve and interpret the 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse – Buffalo’s oldest building still standing on its original foundation.
After 9/11, tours of Buffalo Main Lighthouse were canceled, and the public had limited access to the promenade that leads to the tower. In 2010, the Coast Guard announced it would relinquish a few of its thirty-one acres on the point, and Congressman Brian Higgins obtained over $6 million to reconfigure the Coast Guard station to allow public access to the lighthouse. In April 2011, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation approved a grant of $170,700 to repair and restore the lighthouse in anticipation of public tours. The work was carried out by International Chimney Corporation, and the lighthouse was finally opened to the public in October 2011.
In August 2013, the fourth-order Fresnel lens, which desperately needed preservation work, was removed from Buffalo Lighthouse. The lens was later restored and then placed on display at the Heritage Discovery Center, where the central office of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association is located. Dan Spinella of Artworks Florida was contracted to fabricate an acrylic third-order Fresnel lens for Buffalo Main Lighthouse, and in September 2015, this fixed lens was installed in the lantern room. The new lens is similar to the one that was used in the lighthouse from 1856 to 1905. On June 25, 2016, Buffalo Main Lighthouse was relit with its new acrylic lens, but it is not an official aid-to-navigation.